Dambudzo Marechera and the Zimbabwe Elections

Sometime in 1986 Dambudzo Marechera wrote a series of poems entitled “There’s a Dissident in the Election Soup”. These poems make up Chapter 11 of the post-humously published Cemetry of Mind, compiled and edited by Flora Veit-Wild. Since Zimbabweans are voting on Saturday, March 29, it is important to ponder upon what Marechera had to say about the voting process, that is, if the poems are even about elections.

In “A Strong Case for Crap Artists by One Againsts Them”, Marechera writes:

The soil we cherish as country or continent
Is but humanity turned to dust, to grass, to tree
And many a tear shed for fallen friend returns next
As admired landscape wrenching a dewy drop in the cause
of Art.

Was he talking about the underdevelopment of Africa that makes the continent appear like it’s regressing while others are progressing? That we cherish being African is indeed true and sound, a valid assertion. “Humanity turned to dust” alludes to death, perhaps the deaths occuring in the continent, be they the result of starvation, genocide, and HIV-AIDS, or just the death other continents imagine Africa experiences. Focus your camera on Zimbabwe: rapid migration to neighboring countries and beyond– some of these exiles have been passed dead by their relatives back home, or they feel dead, faced with challenges of starting life anew, or choosing to kill the Zimbabwean identity to become American, British, Canadian, to become these new identities in a deliberate and intentional way (“Where are you from. You’ve a nice accent”. “Me? Oh, Atlanta, sometimes Kentucky!”). Now elections are happening back home and we are not there to vote, enabling or increasing the chances of the current regime to continue clinging to power.

The other part of the poem I like is the mention of humanity turning to tree or grass, both of which are forms of transformation or transition into another life form. Yet the transformation is still some kind of death;it is possible that Marechera knew about reincarnation and embraced it. In fact, were I in Harare’s Africa Unity Square now, I might have been tempted to ask: “Which one of you trees is Marechera?” Next,I would look at the grass around me and see which one would inspire a poem, especially one about elections.

The poem then ends with what could even qualify as a prophetic statement about how things turned out for Marechera, a fallen friend of ours whom we remember conveniently, starting by publishing and praising his works post-humously, writing theses and dessertations that claim to raise his influence to grand proportions, and once every year meeting somewhere in the Avenues or Harare Gardens (if we still do)to read from his works and watch Olly Maruma’s film adaptation of House of Hunger. In most cases though, based on what I know as tributes paid to our fallen artists, there is that which is painfully selfish on the part of those memorializing Art; that is to say, our memories (the tears we shed) return as
an “admired landscape wrenching a dewy drop in the cause/of Art.”

Marechera is clear about his election thoughts in the poem “Only the Mountainclimber Can Tell Us”, in which he paints a picture of a persona who is bitter about what someone in power has or has not done for him/her. The person, this force, has done so much damage through greed and corruption that the persona’s propects for success are doomed, but, guess what, the perona “will not have you as excuse/To [his/her] failure (Too Easy!)” I can hear the person of power asking, “So what are you going to do? You, insignificant as you are, what can you do?” The persona, who has learned the “neocolonialist”‘s “wrestling tactics”, will invite him into the ring and teach him a lesson “blow for blow”. At last the persona will “come out of the ring facing Mount Kenya!” And there you have it, the meaning of the electoral process to Dambudzo Marechera’s persona.

Poetry and its Readers

In his Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser advises poets to remember that poetry uses language, which is meant to enable communication with other people. He aptly describes the poet’s job as not involving writing works only the poet can understand, but ones that make sense to the reader.

On the same day I read this advice, I also chanced upon Charles Simic’s Sixty Poems. I think when one becomes a US Poet Laureate, there is really nothing stopping him or her from using titles like Poems, Forty Poems, My Poems, etc. I bought Simic’s book (I have read many good reviews about him and his current title is something to make a reader curious).

So far I have read the first three poems of Sixty Poems. I fell in love with the first two, “Toward Nightfall” and “Against Whatever It is That’s Encroaching”. The third one, “St. Thomas Acquinas” started off strong, immediately arresting me with its first line: “I left parts of myself everywhere”. Then I started going “against whatever was encroaching” when I read the following lines:

” She had traveled to darkest Africa.
She had many stories to tell about the jungle.”

“A black man and I stole a woman’s dress.
It was of silk; it shimmered.”

I stopped reading and started looking for my receipt (that’s the only way I can get a full refund). In Kooser’s view, I was acting like your regular (but most important) readers, “slightly on their guard.” The first-impression stereotypical message in those lines made me lose interest, but that was temporary; I remembered I was one of those readers who actually buy poetry books and read them thoroughly. So I finished reading the poem and watched it climb the heights of grand application to the human experience, and I began to remember that as poets we create personae for our works, and I started thinking….”…traveled to darkest [someone making fun of Conrad?] Africa/….stories about the jungle.” Jungle? Jungle.

I ordered a tea (I aways get tea in this Wi-Fi place), and started editing my own poetry, making sure it grabs and sustains the reader’s friendship, or some such sweet nothing in Ted Kooser’s manual.

Digital Libraries Devaluing Literature?

So I hear some former and current graduate students of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop are enraged by the university’s plan to digitalize MFA theses. So I hear some former and current graduate students of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop are mad about the university’s plan to digitalize MFA theses. These texts, improperly named “theses” since they are creative works like novels and poetry collections, would be force-published on the university library’s website; they would then become abvailable to all of us through Google and other search engines. The writers, now up in arms, argue this is unfair and should not be implemented since it will lower the commercial value of their creative writing.

Really, is there anything wrong with having one novel (thesis) posted online by an instution like the Iowa Worshop? Isn’t it a way of credibly displaying one’s work? Oh, but the writers are saying the work might be embarrassing, and others think that’s publication without consent.

There has been an increasing trend of authors turning to the internet either to give previews of their works, or to blog their work into existence. I use the latter for my poetry. But the writers have the control of the length of time they want their work to appear online. Some will woe readers, then remove the work and let the readers beg for it to be published in print format. In short, why the digital age might be construed to devalue the art, some authors have found ways to gain value through effective use of the internet.

The Iowa Digital Library displays, however, would be a permanent record of the author’s early, or sometimes immature, hence embarrassing work. Or if the work is marketable, the authors argue that no publisher would be willing to publish it as long as it stays displayed on the Iowa website.

Perhaps Iowa should modify its open access policy by adding that the work will remain displayed until such a time when a publisher is interested in it; then it will be removed to raise its marketability value.

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Words of Wisdom

I have said it elsewhere, and I will say it again: I prefer getting my knowledge about nations and their cultures from creative writers. Art is able to capture aspects of life that the popular media has not learned to capture. I often trust that writers delve deeper (they better if they want to have a lasting impact) into the issues of human nature; they go even deeper than the philosopher. So it was with great pride that I read Tsitsi Dangarembga’s latest interview with Per Contra, which reveals some aspects of Dangarembga’s position on life in contemporary Zimbabwe. Below is an excerpt of the interview:

Dangarembga: Zimbabwe is a very complex issue. I think one of the most common misconceptions is that everything would work out in my country if President Mugabe were removed from office. This is a frighteningly simplistic and reductionist way of looking at a problem that has historical antecedents stretching back over a century. It is very unfortunate that some of our major opposition parties take this position because I think that such an over-simplification prevents the level of analysis we require to come up with solutions.To be fair to oppositions, though, it does too often seem as though the attainable goals are goals we set against each other. Nevertheless, there are a host of contextual factors that need to be put into the equation, and these contextual factors also include our own Zimbabwean pre-colonial, colonial, and neo-colonial idiosyncracies. These contextual factors determine a lot of people’s behaviours, including those behaviours that perpetrate abusive and repressive systems.

Another misconception in my view is that Zimbabweans are victims of one diabolical plot or another. I believe Zimbabweans are responsible for the current deterioration in the country due to crude egoism and materialism, and an inability to conceptualise and work towards a common national good.

Listen to this: “Crude egoism and materialism, and an inability to conceptualize and work towards a common national good.” Vaudze, mwana wamai! This is the dreadful question Valerie Tagwira raises as well towards the end of Uncertainty of Hope, when the narrator wonders whether the country will ever be able to return to a normal state even after the present situation has settled.

The Zimbabwean’s “inability to conceptualize and work towards  a common national good” may even translate to the inability to work towards a common “diasporic good” that seems evident out here. The only time we seem to have a serious natonal interest while abroad is when we do the materialistic Zim Expo chaos often controlled by the Western Unions and whatever other interests; and what’s up with the Miss Canada-Zimbabwe, Miss Britain-Zimbabwe and Miss USA-Zimbabwe craze that takes away from us focusing on issues that matter? Ah, at least we get to kick soccer balls and show off our diasporic acquistions at such gatherings!

Back to Dangarembga. Often very quiet in the literary world (Does she even do book signings?) she surfaces once in a while either with a new novel or the occasional interview, but when she does so, expect a lot of sense to come out her.  Her upcoming novel Bira seems promising, and a reader who will acquire all three of the books in the trilogy would have gotten quite a  treat.


Reading Literature & Relating

When I read Thomas Hardy at a rural secondary school in Zimbabwe, my teachers expected me to relate to the characters, to understand them as part my reality in life. Of course, we were aware that reading these books was a way to travel to worlds far away from ours, but then by the time we finished reading them, we had been made to believe that they talked about our lives. One way in which we related to the characters was through their rural or semi-rural settings (especially Far From the Madding Crowd with its farmlands and plains); our imaginations were supposed to travel far in order to see near; thus, the crackling of embers in our fireplaces would communicate with the stark countryside realism of Hardy’s Dorset. Relating to these strange, but familiar stories opened in us the desire to read and relate that would see me write compositions set in London or New York even though I had not even visited my nearby Zvishavane town.  Such  explorations of foreign but familiar landscapes were even compounded by the fact that later in secondary school we would act Julius Caeser to audiences of proud mothers and grandmothers, to grinning and nodding fathers and grandfathers under a huge, ageless Muunga tree at the school.

But what is the point of all this?

Somehow I came to a world whose reality was that there were literatures one was supposed to read and familiarize with, literatures with strange characters that were meant to typify (without question) the universality of the human condition, characters that defied the label of otherness. What am I saying? I witnessed in this world the distribution of a few literatures presented as the quintessence of everything literary, then later was made to taste and finally accept literatures that were fittingly (and flitingly) other. These literatures, the other, the offshoots of the canonical, these were the literatures that came later when we  at the university, handled by junior professors and adjuncts whose motive seemed to squeeze all the eurocentricism out of us,  only to be shelved as transitory once reached upper division, where we found the tenured faculty smiling out reminders  that only the canonical would take us far (to Oxford where even Marechera with his constricted otherness had been a literature student). No wonder bright students who had for two years been singing Chinweizu’s afrocentricity abandoned Achebe again and exhumed Hamlet. Oh, what a moment that was, a moment to relate again, a moment to write theses that would knock on the doors of Harvard, Oslo, Zurich (at least a few of us left that early, before the mass detachment from the familiar and the desperate attachment to the unfamiliar pursued Zimbabwe).

Now, I have had dreams about teaching Things Fall Apart, Nervous Conditions, or Uncertainty of Hope without so much as cringe at the thought of defamiliarizing my audience from their familiar landscapes. And where I have dared turn dream to reality, I have done a damn good job of helping readers see the familiar in the unfamiliar without, however, seducing them into thinking the unfamiliar is the other to whom they cannot relate; rather, I have sought to help them see a balance between their familiar landscapes and the not-so-unfamiliar, not-even-other, worlds of Dangarembga, Arundhati Roy, Achebe, Ngugi, Valerie Tagwira, and even D.H. Lawrence.

Some readers come to the world of works like Things Fall Apart only when they are getting ready to travel to an African country. You see them at Borders, or Barnes & Noble asking for a novel that would best give an understanding of Africa, and the flattered bookseller (often book browsers believe they know what they are looking for, so if they approach you, you feel distinct or bothered, but definitely flattered) often takes them to Things Fall Apart.

“Thank you so much for this. I want to know what I’m getting myself into before I go. Have you been to Africa?” the reader might say.

“Me? Africa? I haven’t even been to Modesto. But this is a book most prospective travelors to Africa buy,” says the bookseller, whose eye lights when he remembers another title, which is hard to get but happens to have been special-ordered for the store because of an event. ” You can also find House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera interesting.”

House of Hunger? It talks about Africa too?” asked the reader.

Dah, thinks the bookseller, who walks the customer to the shelf. Indeed, the book also talks about Africa. So if one looks hard, one might find quite a few books about Africa, but today’s budget will only allow the purchase of one book.

“So which one would you recommend, if someone is only looking to buy one?”

“Things Fall Apart for sure; that’s the one most people say is the best representation of Africa.”

Deal. The reader walks to the cash register. She more places to stop by before finalizing plans for the trip.

The scenario demonstrates one of a few cases where readers willingly enter the world of another literature with the intention to understand how a different society works. Often, such misinformed self-emersion tend to disappoint as anyone who had read Things Fall Apart lately will attest to the fact that it is not be best tool to give you a “clear picture” of Africa today. These readers will encounter a world of the 1800 hundreds and imagine it as today’s Nigeria, only to be disappointed, or uplifted, when they reach Lagos one day; that is, if the touristic reader was travelling to Nigeria; most of these readers who are encouraged to read Things Fall Apart by their travel advisors are often visiting countries like Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and sometimes Zimbabwe.

My point then?

Readers of world literature (and there is no other literature) must be willing (as long as they know they are willing) to enter the world of literature to relate and live. Readers come in different shapes and convictions, and there are those who have to make reading literature their purpose on earth through the attainment of literature degrees and certificates; these have not excuse but to understand (as long as they are aware they understand) the principle upon which literature is anchored: the willingness to read and relate, realizing that in order to relate, they have to be intact selves.